All right, confess: If you've heard of Mauritius at all, it's probably because you know it as the former home of the dodo bird. But there are better reasons to look closely at this small island nation in the Indian Ocean, some 600 miles southeast of Madagascar. For in 2011, Mauritius was (again) ranked number one on the Ibrahim Index of governance among African countries. And by no coincidence, it remains one of the top economic performers in the region: Measured in terms of purchasing power, income per person exceeds $15,000 -- more than Turkey or Brazil.
How did Mauritius manage to grab the brass ring, while so many others in the region have failed? In my own research, I have not discovered a single unique ingredient. But there are some serious lessons here on what can propel economic development.
Hardly anybody forecast a happy economic future for Mauritius before it was granted independence from Britain in 1968. To the contrary: the British economist James Meade (who would go on to win a Nobel Prize) concluded that "the outlook for peaceful development is poor" because of its high population density, reliance on a single crop (sugar cane), and ethnic conflict. He might have added that the island was far from markets for its exports, and a daunting plane journey for European tourists in search of sunshine.
Whatever the reasons for Mauritius' economic success (we'll get back to that), it came at a steady pace, and in ways that spread the wealth. Between 1970 and 2010, the GDP grew at an average annual rate of 5.4 percent, compared with the African average of about 1 percent.
Now, a few small, oil-saturated African countries - think Equatorial Guinea - have grown faster and have higher average incomes. But Equatorial Guinea is a kleptocratic nightmare in which only the guys with fancy uniforms and mirrored sunglasses enjoy high living standards. Mauritius, by contrast, ranks second in Africa (after the Seychelles) on the UN's Human Development Index. And the ranking is reflected in common-sense measures of living standards ranging from life expectancy (74 years) to the portion of the population with easy access to safe drinking water (99 percent).
Mauritius' commitment to open trade and the rule of law (reflected in its ranking on the aforementioned Ibrahim Governance Index as well as the less subjective Index of African Governance calculated at Harvard) do correlate well with growth. But what made Mauritius choose the virtuous path?
Mauritius' human history certainly didn't start promisingly. The original Dutch occupiers stripped the island of its valuable ebony trees in the early 17th century (and killed off the dodo). The French, who were next in line, imported African slaves to grow sugar cane. But with British rule (beginning in 1814), the island began to enjoy what might be characterized as "good globalization." Slavery was abolished, and the sugar plantations learned to make do with indentured servants; some 500,000 were imported from India. And across the next century the British gradually extended political rights to all literate adults, even as sugar production rose steadily.
Not a bad legacy, as African colonial histories go. But underlying the economic success of Mauritius since independence are two subsequent accomplishments. First, unlike any other African country, the country rapidly developed a manufacturing sector (specializing in textiles and clothing). Second, Mauritius has successfully navigated the vagaries of the global economy, on which it is so dependent. It managed to contain the damage from the oil price shocks of the 1970s, and it took in stride the successive losses of preferred access to rich-country markets for sugar and apparel.